I thought it would be appropriate to take the bus up to In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre with my four year old for the opening weekend of Make Believe Neighborhood. Unfortunately I failed to prepare for the fact that it was snowing like crazy and the bus lines would be way behind schedule.

With ten minutes to show time my daughter and I drove up and luckily found parking in the front of the theatre. I thought to myself “alright we made it with a min to spare”. Then she wanted popcorn and some juice. As such we missed the first few minutes of the play.

But like the television it is based on that ran for 31 straight seasons with 910 episodes, Make Believe Neighborhood was incredibly easy to slip into and immediately comforting even for the excited young girl sitting next to me.

Following in the footsteps

In his director’s note, Bart Buch, describes his artistic path as one that parallels Fred Rogers, the originator of the acclaimed show Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Bart came to working with youth, puppets, and music as a young adult and has built his career on that foundation (check out The Playwights’ Center’s interview with Bart). When the opportunity to create a full-length production for HOBT arrived, he knew it was going to be a piece that honored Fred Rogers.

And like Fred, Bart chose to root his production in the people of the neighborhood. Specifically he wanted to meet the incredibly diverse neighbors of Phillips where the Avalon Theatre, home of HOBT, is located.

Make Believe Neighborhood is not so much a play as it is a reflection of Phillips interwoven with documentary impressions of Fred Rogers life. Those documentary impressions give us information about his life sometimes intermixed with puppetry, sometimes preceded by or followed by puppetry.

The puppetry rarely contains dialogue. And this was one of the key things I noticed about this entire piece - space. There is tons of room to breathe. Whether during the transitions between chapters (the show is arranged in two acts with 7 chapters in each), between vignettes inside of the chapters, or event from moment to moment, there is a deliberate pacing that is slow and gentle with room to think and feel.

In an unrelated recent MPR show, I heard a caller talking about Mister Rogers Neighborhood and the slow editing and pace that Fred Rogers established. Having watched a fair amount of modern Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood, kind of pacing certainly no longer remains. Things are much faster now, jump cuts and quick edits make for television shows designed to keep pace with the rush of the modern day.

I initially attributed this pace to logistical necessity, but now, five days later I think this was intentionally done. And so with the rest of the piece I saw many similarities in structure and feel to the original material of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

A more intimate show?

Make Believe Neighborhood makes use of some incredibly well done projection work - albeit some of which could have been edited down a bit more. Buch and three youth apprentices from HOBT’s Phillips project went out in the summer of 2016 - a noted time of increased crime in the neighborhood - and interviewed neighbors and residents to shine a light on the “helpers”. Fred Rogers’ mother had told him that when he saw something scary going on he should look for the “helpers”. Buch wanted to emulate the concept and so Make Believe Neighborhood is filled with stories and images of the people working in and around Phillips.

Fred’s story and history are presented to us in narration and through puppetry by Seth Eberle, Masanari Kawahara, Angela Olson, and Laurie Witzkowski. The cast works incredibly well together and each of them project that same tender care and appreciation that you get when you watch Fred Rogers speak to children. My four year old was rapt with attention during these moments. It should be noted that she was less attentive during the videos. Part of this might have been the audio quality of some of the interviews which suffered from the large room that is the Avalon. Clarity of voice and understanding was often lost due the acoustics. I would have loved if this piece was set in a much more intimate environment.

My two major critiques of Make Believe Neighborhood are the lighting and sound. Music was created live by Martin Dosh (with some predesigned sound work by Kevin Springer). Dosh is a well established musician on his own right with a long history of collaborative work. In this show he manipulates pre-created music by a host of musicians who reimagine songs from Mister Rogers Neighborhood as well as creates soundscapes with looping pedals and digital devices. However, at times the soundscape of rhythmic percussion and digital sound seems to fight the delicate nature of the performances on stage. Additionally, the audio setup in the Avalon again seemed to do more harm than good as the music would often overpower a performer delivering a narration on stage.

Kathy Maxwell’s lighting design unfortunately didn’t help the piece. To be fair it is possible that my critique is not of her choices, but rather in the execution of her design and instrumentation setup of the Avalon’s lighting. Regardless, I spent many moments watching actors talk whose faces were in the dark, while their mid-sections were lit brightly. There were, however, some impressive uses of light including an entire scene of puppets made from working lamps, and light boxes that were part storytelling structure. But unfortunately, moments where I wanted to be intimately drawn into a performer were often marred by an inability to see them adequately.

The people that you meet

Clearly these elements did not bother my four year old. She spent two full acts mostly engaged in the show despite having to sit near the back of the house due to our late arrival. Bart Buch has created a very nuanced and deliberately ‘care-full’ piece. Make Believe Neighborhood, while potentially needing some trimming, is a wonderful look at the life of a man whose tenets of living must be embraced more, by more people, in our polarized culture. But more than that, the piece shows us neighbors right here in Minneapolis who stand as examples as they live the gospel as spoken by Mister Rogers: “I like you. Just the way you are.”

Make Believe Neighborhood is highly recommended, especially if you want to expose your child to a piece that - like Mister Rogers Neighborhood - speaks to them directly about big topics and big feelings with honesty and care. It runs through Feb 25th at the Avalon Theatre, home of In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre